Have you ever viewed the first page of an online book that’s for sale, or stood in a bookstore reading the first paragraph of a book? I think most of us are guilty of deciding in a few minutes whether we will buy the book or look for more options.
Snap Decisions to Buy a Book are Based on Hooking the Reader
Whether you realize it or not, if the author knows anything about marketing and selling books, she probably knows how to hook you into the promise of an unexpected change about to take place. To find out more, the average reader keeps reading. That’s when it’s inevitable that your reader will make a snap decision to buy a book. Why? The words the author used made you curious as to what will happen next. You got hooked.
How to Hook Your Reader
Every man and every woman who reads books knows if the subject or approach has been done before, or if the angle is new. When the author raises a question in the reader’s mind in the opening sentence that suggests changes are coming, and this won’t be a typical book, you’ve hooked your reader.
How to Write a Compelling Opening Sentence
The easiest way to do this is to first write your chapter, and then let it rest for a day before rereading it. Then, read it again, and ask yourself what the mystery is that you’re hiding from the reader. Foreshadow what will happen next by writing out a few questions that you might ask about the story. Next, create an opening sentence that leads the reader through the rest of the paragraph. It might look something like this:
I sat in the audience of a marketing seminar and felt myself getting impatient as the first speaker of the day jostled the pages of notes in front of him, and stuttered for such a long amount of time. That is, until another speaker took the mic and called my name to come up on stage. I froze and didn’t want to look up, hoping this was all a bad dream. Then my name was called again.
The hidden mystery is that the man in the audience was deathly afraid of public speaking. The book was about overcoming your fear of public speaking, but the first sentence revealed a marketing attendee who never volunteered for anything that would put him on stage in front of people where he might have to open his mouth and say something. Certainly, these opening sentences would indicate that some definite changes are coming.
Examining Published Works for Examples of Unexpected Changes
To hook your reader, as the author, you must raise a question in the mind of whomever reads your book’s first paragraph. Let’s look at The Da Vinci Code’s opening sentences crafted by author Dan Brown.
Louvre Museum, Paris, 10:46 P.M.
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas.
If you were reading these opening sentences, hopefully you would be asking yourself why a curator would choose to rip a painting off a wall of one of the world’s famous museums. You also might ponder why he was staggering. In fact, the hint is revealed to the reader that it was late at night, which also causes an alarming feeling about the scene. Nevertheless, you’ve asked yourself some questions, and most likely, you will continue reading to learn what happened, including four murders in the first three pages of the book.
I could go on and give you more examples, but let’s talk about what types of opening action makes an effective narrative hook.
Describe Your Opening Incident
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, a children’s book, a romance, or a business book, the sooner you can hook your reader into the story, the sooner you will gain a new voice that will share the title of your book with others.
To describe your opening incident, consider asking yourself one or more of the following questions.
Does the action in the event suggest that a change has just occurred or is about to occur in the character’s life?
Will my readers wonder what the main character will do next, or what consequences he or she might suffer from that action?
Does the action prompt the reader to wonder why this event occurred or could have been avoided?
After asking yourself any or all of the questions above and your response is no, then it’s best for you to start your book with a different opening incident.
Character Details and the Setting
A reader can also get hooked into your book by providing provocative details about the character or setting that is first introduced. Remember, a compelling opening sentence must suggest that something is about to occur or change.
Mystery writer, Susan Isaacs, is good at giving readers the details about a main character. In After All These Years, the book begins with the following two sentences:
After nearly a quarter-of-a-century of marriage, Richie Meyers, my husband, told me to call him Rick. Then he started slicking back his hair with thirty-five-dollar-a-jar English pomade.
Do these opening sentences make you wonder about Rick? Maybe he’s having an affair, or he’s going through a life change, or maybe even a midlife crisis. But, you’ll have to read further to find out the reason.
What About the Opening Sentences in Your Book?
Now, think about your story and your book. Is there a way your readers will be curious about your opening sentences? It’s possible! Yes! Listed below are a few guidelines to help you open your book with a setting or with specific details about the main character.
- Use descriptive and specific details (the thirty-five-dollar-a-jar pomade)
- Make a promise with your reader that conflict will soon come. (How will the narrator react to her new, “improved” husband?)
- Indicate that a change from the normal routine will take place or that the character acts contradictory to his usual behavior.
It’s your job to make readers want to find out if their guesses were correct or if they are shocked or surprised at the outcome.
Beginning a novel with a sweeping expository statement was common in the 19th century, giving us such famous openings as:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” (A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)
An Opening Sentence of Exposition
In an article written by Nancy Kress in the year 2005, she states:
An opening sentence of exposition—telling us something in the grand abstract—can be a remarkably effective attention-getter if it raises questions about the story to come. Consider the opening sentence of the first book in Janet Evanovich’s successful mystery series about inept bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, One for the Money:
There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me—not forever, but periodically.
The first sentence makes a general statement unconnected to any specific character or situation. Readers may or may not stop to ponder the truth of this pronouncement, but it’s certainly provocative. The abstract statement is immediately followed by a second sentence that does give a few specifics: 1) We have a first-person female narrator; 2) her life has been screwed up by Joseph Morelli; and 3) the screwing-up wasn’t permanent but has occurred more than once.
These specifics raise certain questions: How exactly did Morelli affect her life? Why did she permit it to happen more than once? Is she a victim or a volunteer? So we read on to find out the answers.
Questions that require answers are what keep readers turning the pages and wanting to read more of your book—and the place to start raising those questions is with your very first sentence.